Like Everything About LA, Being Education Mayor Is Different

Mayor Villaraigosa may not be single-handedly responsible for this good news, but without his passion for public education and determination to improve it, it is very likely none of it would have happened.
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Co-written with Patrick Sinclair, Senior Director, Communications and External Affairs
Partnership for Los Angeles Schools

It's been almost eight years since Antonio Villaraigosa moved into LA City Hall and announced fixing the public schools would be a hallmark of his administration -- even though he had no formal control over the school district. Cynics scoffed and advisors cautioned, but the new mayor was on a mission and the behemoth Los Angeles Unified School District, or LAUSD, would never be the same.

Mayor Villaraigosa not only believed in the transformative power of education, he had lived it. A one-time high school dropout from a poor LA neighborhood, raised by his single mom, he eventually found his way to UCLA and it changed his life. He was living proof that an education can help realize dreams and he was determined to make sure that educational opportunity would be available to the children of Los Angeles.

His first move as mayor was to try to assert formal control over the school district. Big city mayors in Chicago, New York, Boston, D.C. and many other cities had been doing so for years and improvements were often the result. Mayor Villaraigosa got far with the idea, getting bipartisan support from the governor and legislature to pass the needed changes to the laws, but he ran into a brick wall when the courts ruled mayoral takeover violated the state constitution. His response? "We will not be set back. We refuse to be deterred by the forces of the status quo." The mayor recognized if he couldn't literally lead school district reforms, he could orchestrate them nonetheless.

His office published the Schoolhouse Framework, a vision for reform drawn from best practices across the country. The Framework put forth an organic and community based approach to reform with calls for more decentralization, choice, higher standards and grass roots participation. His was the first mayoralty to explicitly make education reform a City Hall initiative and the ideas laid out in the Schoolhouse Framework were only the beginning.

He launched a new non-profit, the Partnership for Los Angeles Schools, to pilot innovation for the district and to bring focus and new resources to some of the city's most troubled schools. He invited several schools to join the Partnership and ten schools representing more than 15,000 students voted to do so.

He interjected himself into the races for the school board, helping to raise millions of dollars and actively campaigning for reform candidates. In Los Angeles, it takes a strong, high-profile leader to counter the huge impact special interests have on the off year, low-turnout, but nonetheless very costly school board elections. The mayor did that and the result was a reform-minded majority that would help translate his vision of reform into a reality.

With the support of a board majority, his deputy mayor for education and key contributor to the Schoolhouse Framework, Ramon Cortines, was soon appointed superintendent of LAUSD. The school board majority also launched a groundbreaking initiative, at least for LA, called Public School Choice, which allowed teachers, charters and other outside operators to bid to manage low performing schools, igniting a wave of change and debate that continues to this day.

And what did all this effort by a mayor with no actual authority over the schools help do?

LAUSD has had double-digit growth in academic performance, based on state test scores for each of the last five years and a graduation rate that's up from 48 percent five years ago to 64% today.

Almost 140 schools have undergone aggressive turnaround efforts over the last five years, and the percentage of LAUSD schools meeting the state goal of an 800 API score (Academic Performance Index) has more than doubled. Attendance is up and suspensions are down dramatically over the same period of time.

When Superintendent Cortines retired last year, the board appointed the equally reform minded John Deasy to replace him with the aim of carrying the agenda forward.

Public School Choice has evolved into three different models offering parents, teachers and administrators varying levels of autonomy from district and union contracts.

Los Angeles has more students enrolled in charter schools than any other school district in the nation, 82,788 students in the 2011-12 school year, or 12.5 percent of the total K-12 enrollment.

The Mayor's Partnership for Los Angeles Schools added six more schools and last year its network of schools posted gains in their API scores that outpaced the district and state overall. The Partnership's Jordan High School had the highest API jump of any high school in the District.

Moreover, the Partnership broke barriers when it tested all its second graders for entrance into the gifted program and proved there are as many gifted children in inner city schools as there are in more affluent areas, correcting an egregious, historical oversight. As a result, LAUSD began testing all second graders for entrance into gifted programs.

The Partnership and the mayor also took the lead in a landmark lawsuit alleging the civil rights of students had been violated due to the disproportionate burden seniority-based hiring and layoff practices place on inner city schools during budget cuts. When budget cuts hit, as they have in each of the last five years in LA, the last hired are the first fired, which meant inner city schools could see staff cuts of 50% while other schools could see none. This lawsuit has changed that.

The Mayor's Partnership schools also trail-blazed areas of parent engagement. Parent centers at each school were redesigned, parent teams were recruited and trained at each school, and a groundbreaking Parent College was launched, eventually hosting thousands from across LAUSD.

Moreover, the Mayor's Partnership did something LA's public schools had never done successfully: it raised money. It attracted partners. It became an effective way to engage philanthropic and city leaders in local public schools. To date, the Partnership has raised more than $72 million and partnered with more than 70 organizations to bring services and materials to their students.

That increased engagement in public schools is perhaps one of the key legacies of this Mayor. Since he couldn't push the school district levers of power himself, he necessarily relied on his skills to get others to share his vision and make it real. The result is an organically growing reform movement that will live well beyond the end of his term.

Mayor Villaraigosa will leave office next June, but the Partnership for Los Angeles Schools will stay in place, a team of 40 professionals working with their portfolio of LAUSD schools. School Board members and the Superintendent will continue on as well. The roster of funders and partners for public education in Los Angeles will continue to increase, as will the variety of educational options for parents, students and educators. Charters will continue to prosper and contribute to the reform of public schools. Test scores will continue their upward climb.

Moreover, while there have been and continue to be many contentious issues and moments in Los Angeles public education, the city has been relatively free of the polarizing combat we've seen elsewhere. Consensus for needed change has kept all parties involved and at the bargaining table as needed, and despite extraordinary budget cuts resulting in thousands of teacher lay-offs, the district and its unions continue to push for change and improvement throughout the nearly 900 schools of LAUSD.

However, despite enormous progress and momentum, the problems in LA's public schools are by no means solved. Reading and math scores still lag national averages badly; continuing budget cuts will further decimate public funding for schools; the district and its unions cannot agree on methods of teacher evaluation, costing them possibly $40 million in federal funding; reformers and unions are battling over how to handle teachers accused of serious crimes; hundreds of thousands of English Language Learners have to be more effectively managed and taught; programs for art, music and PE receive little to no funding--the list goes on.

Nonetheless, there is steady, positive news and more reason than ever to believe all these challenges can be met and all the children of Los Angeles will have access to a quality education. Mayor Villaraigosa may not be single-handedly responsible for this good news, but without his passion for public education and determination to improve it, it is very likely none of it would have happened.

As Eisenhower said, "Leadership is the art of getting someone else to do something you want done because he wants to do it." Antonio Villaraigosa used that piece of wisdom to make himself LA's version of an Education Mayor. Let's hope LA's next mayor embraces Eisenhower's words as well, builds on Mayor Villaraigosa's education legacy, and sets about making it their own. The 650,000 children of LAUSD and their families are depending on it and deserve no less.

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